Ewing Township health administrator Teri Vacirca has been immersed in all things COVID these past several months, scheduling residents for vaccines and working on other COVID-related issues for the township. Workdays have been hectic and demanding, but she has found a respite tucked away in the bucolic landscape of Hopewell Township, very close to her home.
“Mercer Stables is the best-kept secret in Mercer County,” Vacirca said recently. “It’s very relaxing. Breeze in my face, total relaxation being outside.”
Mercer County Stables, which sits on the winding, field-lined Federal City Road in Hopewell Township, offers 243 acres of marked trails and pastures. The facility, which has been owned by the County of Mercer and operated by the Mercer County Park Commission since 1994, has expanded its offerings with recreational and therapeutic programs.
“Our Park Commission has made Mercer County Stables accessible for people from all segments of our community,” said Brian M. Hughes, Mercer County executive. “I encourage residents to explore the variety of inclusive programs that the Stables provides, either online or by visiting in person.”
“It has been important to me that more people have the ability to enjoy this wonderful facility and all that it has to offer,” said Aaron T. Watson, director of the Mercer County Park Commission. “And knowing that price is sometimes an issue, we try to make our offerings affordable to everyone.”
One of Watson’s goals was to get more people on horseback by providing low-cost trail rides. “You can get a nice 30-minute ride for just $35,” he said. “And we have seen a real influx of County residents coming out to enjoy our facility.”
Stables director Christine Cardinal says they only started offering trail rides in 2019. “So many people have taken advantage of these low-cost excursions that we have decided to offer trail riding into the evenings now,” she said.
The stables also provide English Riding lessons, summer camps and educational programs. Since 2005, it’s been offering the Horses and Youth program, an equine-based educational and recreational program specifically for children from underserved areas in Mercer County. HAY students participated free of charge from 2006 to 2016 when the program was 100 percent funded by the Princeton Area Community Foundation’s Dorothy E. Katz Reading and Recreation Fund of Hopewell Valley.
In addition to the Stables’ director, the Park Commission depends on barn laborers and riding instructors to operate the facility. But the Stables also benefits from volunteers who provide up to 2,000 hours of service per year. Volunteers assist staff with barn work, summer camp and Adaptive Riding programs.
One volunteer, at 15 years old, dedicated five days per week, five hours a day last year. “I want to pursue a career related to farm management,” said Adela Rodriguez, who showed up each day with a smile and amazing attitude. This type of dedication helps keep the Stables running smoothly.
Power Tools for Living is an equine-assisted psychotherapy program designed to develop and strengthen resilience and healthy behavior. It has seen increased interest recently, as people have suffered COVID-related illness, loss and trauma this past year. The Park Commission has kept the cost of this program down to help more people interested in this innovative approach to mental health support.
A recent visit to the Stables found all the horses outdoors, where they now spend most of their time. “A horse’s overall health and mental well-being is better the more it is allowed to be outside,” said Cardinal. “This is why we’ve built run-in sheds that allow the horses to get out of the sun or inclement weather, and give them a sense of security at night.”
Seven of the run-in sheds were built in 2019 by in-house carpenters and stained by in-house painters. Using talented Park Commission tradesmen to build the sheds saved the County close to $50,000. “I couldn’t be happier with the quality of these sheds,” said Cardinal. “They also save on bedding costs, since the horses are not in the barn stalls.”
In spite of the Stables’ many activities, Cardinal has been adept at spreading out the scheduling so that the number of people there at one time is low, and it’s still Vacirca’s go-to spot for a little getaway. “It’s such a positive experience,” Vacirca said. “Trail riding has come at a really good time in my life.”
For more about Mercer County Stables, visit mercercountyparks.org/#!/facilities/mercer-county-stables.